“Everything happens for a reason.” Corazon – My wife.
“Everything happens for a reason.” That’s been Cora’s mantra for the nearly 40 years that we’ve been married and I imagine goes back to the years that she spent in a convent. I’ve always taken it to be an insufficient bromide that marginalizes everything from my broken ankle that kept me from running for over a year to floods and famine.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she would offer and I would ask her to give me the reason. She often couldn’t and so I would call BS and declare a hollow victory. Now I’m not so sure. I’m not calling BS on Cora this time. A recent string of events that seemed so random at the time seem to be uncannily tied together. Maybe things do happen for reasons that either manifest themselves or that we are simply left to ponder over in their mystery.
The singular, jarring event was when I unexpectedly learned of the death six years ago of a young Korean woman who, many years ago and before meeting Cora, I had been deeply in love with (the story is told in a post bearing her name Nana). I was crushed and all the emotions that I felt when our relationship had suddenly ended 41 years ago came surging back.
As desolate as the next two weeks would be, they were weeks of reflection and revelation and learning. I learned to better understand the pain of loss. There was a reminder of the importance of kindness, of friendship, of family and there was a reordering of priorities. I realized that in the long run there are things that matter and things that don’t. There was revelation about spirituality and patience and sympathy and forgiveness. There was reflection about love and discovery, about truth and the importance of both. Through it all there came a reaffirmation of Cora’s immense capacity for love, for kindness, for understanding and for empathy.
There was also that acceptance that maybe some things do happen for a reason.
How stupid was I that for all these years I’ve never understood how painful the loss of someone so dear could be. Over the course of my 65 years I’ve been very close to only a smattering of people and of those only two have passed. It was May 2nd, the night before my mom’s birthday when Dad, confused and panicked called me and told me that something was wrong with Mom and that an ambulance was on the way. Late at night the drive from my home in South San Francisco to the family home in San Mateo was about 20 minutes and when I arrived the paramedics were just getting ready to put Mom in the ambulance.
The next morning on her 66th birthday, Mom died of the heart attack that she’d suffered the night before. Dad was inconsolable and it was on me to make all of the arrangements; advise the family, prepare for guests, handle the funeral arrangements, tend to the visiting relatives, prepare the reception and take care of the paperwork, the financials and the legalities.
Through it all I didn’t shed a tear; adrenaline I guess. It was after the funeral and reception that I finally broke down; more likely from exhaustion than sorrow. Mom and I had a strained relationship that worsened when I hit the teen years and then, when I moved out, instead of getting better as it should have, it only got worse. We didn’t dislike each other but the bond between mother and son was not a firm one. Years later I made amends with Mom at her gravesite.
Eleven years after Mom passed, Dad followed. During most of those eleven years Dad was tortured with Alzheimer’s. He died in a nursing home in Stockton. When we heard that he was on the edge of death we made the drive and got there in time to be by his side. We buried him next to Mom. It was past time for him.
And so it was left to Nana. Of all of the people in my life who have passed away Nana was the dearest. When she died she was, in today’s parlance, young, only 59. Unlike Mom and Dad, I wasn’t there to say goodbye. I don’t know the how or the why. After some research I found that she’d died in Los Angeles. During the intervening 40 years I don’t know if she remembered me and if she did if that remembrance was bitter or sweet. I wonder if she’d kept the pictures that I took of her on our second date, the ones that she’d said made her look so pretty; as if a camera could have enhanced the beauty that struck me when I first saw her. It’s been almost two weeks since I found out about her death and while the shock and hurt of learning of her death has left me I’m still struggling with the question of how she lived her life. My hope is that it was a good life but it’s a question that will never be answered.
Was it finally comprehending how searingly painful the death of a loved one could be, “the reason?”
Reordering and humanity
Over the course of the past two weeks I found that pain reorders priorities. I learned that even in pain, maybe especially in pain, you find yourself shutting out ugliness, pettiness and negativity. I had no room for greed and malice and apathy. I shrugged away that malevolent cocoon of general pettiness and anger that envelops us almost every moment of every day. None of that warranted my attention, my time or my effort.
Wherever it is that emotions reside, soul, spirit, heart or some little shoebox tucked between the heart and lungs or the soul and the spirit, I couldn’t – wouldn’t – accommodate any of it. It was already chock a block full of pain. A one time news and political junkie I found that I had no time for Republicans and Democrats and CNN and Fox and the back and forth anger and loathing, all of it with no foreseeable endgame.
There was no vacancy to accommodate the almost unbroken whining about life’s minor perceived headaches, from getting cut off in traffic all the way down to the refs “robbing” the local sports team down to hating Progressive Flo in the insurance commercials just because she’s annoying. All of the rooms in the emotional hotel were booked solid by melancholy. And I was better for it.
I may have received a big dose of heartbreak but ironically it came with a small dram of tranquility. Although there have been a couple of moments of backsliding, I’m over it with politics and arguing and life’s pettiness and whining. If you want to grouse over the Kars for Kids jingle then take it somewhere down the road. In the end its better to experience depth of feeling even if it involves hurt than to wallow in the vulgarities of greed, anger and hatred.
Most important of all, I didn’t just blow off the news of Nana’s death; “Well it was nice at the time but that was forty years ago. I’ve moved on. She was young when she went but that’s the way it goes.” No, the news was devastating and I feel better for myself about that. As miserable as I’ve felt there’s been this pleasant reaffirmation that maybe I have a heart after all. In a perverse way I needed that hurt to validate my own humanity.
Through this all I’ve rediscovered the kindness of people. People, some whom I’ve never met but for social media, responded with kindness and sympathy. There was my former co-worker who sent me a text wishing she could give me a big hug; my longtime running partner who talked to me for hours. And then there was that one Facebook friend. We’ve never met in person but she reached out to me offering me her support. With no hesitation and no doubts I accepted her offer and through emails her kindness and empathy helped take away some of the edge. She’s given me her very much appreciated perspective.
I was touched by my daughter Jessica’s role reversal moment. Usually it’s the parent who provides the solace and kind words but one evening I was sitting on the porch in the waning sun just wanting to be alone with my thoughts when my daughter Jessica came out to talk to me about it all.
At times throughout my life I’ve gotten the impression that my children don’t realize that their dad can hurt deeply sometimes and that’s not on them for being cold but squarely on me for too often being less of the loving father that I should’ve been. I was touched by the depth of feeling offered by my daughter.
Was my reordering of priorities and my rediscovery of the humanity that exists in people “the reason?”
I guess it was about two weeks prior when I took Cora to breakfast to have a talk. I was going to do a post about an old girlfriend (not Nana) and I wanted to ask her permission. This led to a more general conversation about past relationships. I’d asked her if she had ever thought back on past boyfriends and she responded emphatically that she didn’t. “Why trouble myself with that bullshit?” When Cora drops the rare BS bomb I know she’s really serious. I differed on that one. I’ve often thought back on girlfriends past, not particularly with any emotion but I hadn’t put them out of my mind. We agreed to disagree.
The subject that didn’t come up but would at the end of this story was love. At the end of a relationship in which you’ve loved, can you simply turn off the switch? I imagine that question has as many answers as there are people who’ve ever loved. And none of them are wrong, there is nothing more personal than love.
How would I answer that question? I believe that love is not a mechanical thing. It has no switch, no key with which to turn it on or off at will. There are no buttons or levers to govern it. Love isn’t programmed, automated or spiritless. It’s not unlike a rose; it starts from seed, germinates, grows and blossoms. It lives until something malevolent kills it.
A few days after the talk I was looking for photos of my mom’s family. I was sorting through various bins, albums and shoeboxes all strewn around the bedroom floor. There were hundreds of envelopes and even more hundreds of photos, some dating back to 1939. In one shoebox, completely out of the date sequence in that box I found an envelope labeled “tide pools: 8 -78.” I had no idea what was in that envelope so on a whim I opened it. Inside were pictures of the tide pools at a local state beach and three pictures of Nana that I’d forgotten existed. It all took me back to that forgotten afternoon when I took Nana tide pooling.
One of the photos of Nana was taken at the beach. She’s bending over one of the pools and looking back at me. Two were taken in the backyard of my family home. I stared at one of the photos for some time. It’s completely unposed; an unguarded fun moment when we must have been just hanging out at the family home while house sitting for my parents. She isn’t wearing any makeup and in it she’s holding a rose and winking at the camera. I put the photos back in the envelope and the envelope back in the bin. I blew it off as ancient history. A week later that photo of her holding a rose and winking would be the one that would hurt my heart the most.
Nana and I were in our mid-twenties when we met and fell in love. The relationship ended abruptly and, for me painfully. I never harbored any ill will because in the end it was a stupid act on my part that caused the breakup. And so when it was all over, all that was left was to just let go. In time I did but the love I had for her was, unbeknownst to me tucked away, dormant, in that shoebox that resides somewhere within us just like those photos I’d found. Four decades later it was opened again.
Talk to Nana. Talk to her spirit.
Cora is a very spiritual person. I don’t always buy her spiritual theory and when I do buy it I often ask if it comes with a warranty. But neither do I blithely dismiss her spiritual doctrines. Her spirituality has helped carry her successfully, steadfastly and gracefully through four bouts with cancer and that’s nothing to underestimate. It’s also her spirituality that has kept our little domestic ship from running aground. Along with her theory that everything happens for a reason, she believes deeply in the souls and spirits of the departed.
Early on, Cora told me that she was praying for Nana’s soul in heaven. She told me that Nana’s spirit is probably restless and she needs me, ME, to pray for her and to talk to her. Cora believes that our relationship talk, finding the long lost photos and stumbling onto the news of Nana’s death were not all coincidence. “You had to know,” she told me. “Nobody was going to tell you so you were led to find out about it.” Cora consistently urged me to talk to Nana. Maybe I would find the reason.
At a certain point you hit the desperate time which, according to an old saying, requires the desperate measure. And so, late in the night I would often wake up and talk to her. Never got an answer, never got a reason. I prayed and talked to Nana but it seemed that whoever mans the everything happens for a reason help desk wasn’t picking up and the voice mailbox was full.
There was one point at which I thought I’d turned the corner. A few days after learning of Nana’s death I woke up in the middle of the night and thought I’d heard in my head, “let go.” When I got up in the morning I declared myself cured. Unfortunately what I thought was the final depth of the depression was just a false bottom and I continued to grieve into the next week.
And then early one morning maybe someone finally checked the voicemail.
Learning the lie
The story of my relationship with Nana is a layered one. There are details in this and my original story that I felt were appropriate and respectful to her for publication. There is a deeper layer that my wife and daughter and a friend or two know. There is another layer that only one trusted friend and nobody else on the planet knows and then there are the layers that will remain buried with Nana.
I’d never talked much to anyone about Nana, even Cora, especially Cora. Cora has known about other past girlfriends and actually worked with one of them. Over the years she would joke about them with me and that’s been okay. But not Nana. Nana was the third rail that was not to be approached and joked about so I never really spoke of her.
Any conversations about her were reflective and when I woke up at 3 A.M. last Saturday I was slapped with a realization. I’ve been deluding myself with a lie. I’ve always believed that because of a foolish act of mine, Nana was angered, broke off our relationship and broke my heart; she broke my heart. Looking up at the dim ceiling I understood four decades later that it was was I who disappointed her and broke her heart.
Nana and I were both 25 when we met, she seven months older in age but in experience years beyond me. She had arrived in America from Korea at 21, likely looking for that promised land of the American dream. At 21 I was going to college and still living with my parents; the sheltered, privileged life of white suburbia in the same house I’d known for 16 years.
Four years later, when we met I was still stuck in immaturity, naive and ignorant about life, while the bright American promise that Nana had hoped for was turning dark. When I met her I knew that she was not in a good place but in my still youthful ignorance it never dawned on me what was meant by being in a bad place. For me a bad place was in the middle of a traffic jam in San Francisco or having the “nosebleed” seats at a rock concert. Those were my bad places. Nana’s bad place was dark and desperate and had to be frightening for a young woman in a land that was still essentially a foreign one. Nana’s situation was something beyond my understanding and tragically something I didn’t even try to understand. It didn’t dawn on me until four decades later that the young woman who I was in love with was probably as fragile as that metaphorical rose petal.
It’s taken forty years for me to come to the realization that while we were both in love, she needed more than just love. Four decades to actually get it that for this young woman having someone fall in love with her was not enough. More than love she needed trust. For a brief time I must have lived up to what she thought was a renewal. And I’d given her good reason. I was kind, affectionate and gentle; I never gave her a hard look, never was annoyed, never said a word in anger, never abused her in any way, on the contrary had her on a pedestal and certainly never ever considered cheating on her. And she knew without a doubt that I adored her. I imagine that like me, she was at the height of happiness in a relationship.
But in the end it wouldn’t be enough. I didn’t realize some of the realities of her life that had brought about disappointment. I didn’t realize that she was at a place where she desperately needed to be able to trust and when the time came to lean on that trust I kicked it out from under her. The disappointment must have broken her heart. I’ve no doubt that she knew that I loved her but she was at a point in her life where just love wouldn’t cut it. She had to be able to trust and on that count I’d burned her. As I lay there in bed I came to the realization that in that time and place so long ago she must have been so hurt and so disappointed.
And so at 3 in the morning I took Cora’s advise once again. I prayed to Nana and told her that for forty years I’ve been wrong; she hadn’t broken my heart, I had broken hers and betrayed her trust. In the dim early morning I apologized over and over and begged her to forgive me.
I don’t know if this stuff works
Three years ago I’d had to make the decision to put our dog Rainey to sleep. It was done in our bedroom where she’d always gone to for peace and quiet or whatever it is that dogs seek when they want to be on their own for a while. When her eyes closed for the last time I was inconsolable. I wanted my dog back in the worst way. Someone sent me the story of The Rainbow Bridge, that mythical arch that our pets cross over when they pass away that leads to a sunny place where they’re made whole again; a place where they run and play and do dog things to their heart’s content including waiting to be reunified with their people. The story ends happily when the people pass away and then cross over the Rainbow Bridge to play with their pets. In the first days after Rainey died I so wanted to believe in The Rainbow Bridge; I so wanted for Rainey to once again jump on me and lick my face.
And now I want to believe in Cora’s notion of talking to the souls of those who have gone before us. I want to believe that Nana has received my apology and that she forgives me and understands. Maybe this all falls into place in Cora’s belief in everything happening for a reason. Maybe that talk about relationships and then finding those pictures a short time later were all signs; preludes. During that period when I was grieving, Cora suggested that it was meant for me to veer off into that internet search for Nana. Cora was adamant that Nana’s soul was restless and needed soothing. Maybe my apology gave Nana’s spirit the solace that she needed.
So many maybe’s. I don’t know if these things work, Rainbow Bridges and talking to souls. What I do know is that when I woke up again after talking to Nana and apologizing for breaking her heart I’d felt that the weight had been lifted. I went through the day unburdened by the hurt of nearly two weeks. And while thoughts of Nana would still visit me, they no longer brought on the painful sightless stare. Maybe she heard me, and maybe I soothed her and her answer was to tell me it’s all good now, there are no hard feelings, go on with your life and live happily with the woman who you married.
I believe that there was a reason for the string of random events that, in looking back, seem to have been meant to be tied together. Will I ever know the reason? Maybe I already know the reason and don’t realize it. Is there a lesson to be learned? Over the course of the two weeks a lot of lessons were revealed. I suppose the question remains, will I live by those lessons? Is that my challenge? Maybe the reason will manifest itself sometime in the future. It would be great if the 25 year old Nana would appear to me in a dream and tell me straight out. It would go a long way to solving the riddle but that’s about as likely to happen as crossing the Rainbow Bridge.
Did all of this happen for a reason and did I soothe Nana’s spirit? Or is it just another bromide to make me feel better, something to call BS on? I’m choosing the former this time.
If there is a reason maybe part of it was for Cora and I to sit down and have as deep and meaningful and truthful a talk as any we’ve ever had.
“Love is something that lives inside of us and loss isn’t dictated by time.”
A very talented writer, going by the nom de plume of Flowering Ink Girl, whom I’ve met only through the blogosphere wrote that to me.
Later in the evening of that day when I’d offered that early morning apology to Nana, Cora and I sat on the patio in the waning sunlight and I told her about my experience and the feeling that I’d finally turned the corner. We talked for a long time about things happening for a reason and about spirituality and relationships and about love.
Cora noted that while she’d seen pictures, I’d never talked to her about Nana as I had other past girlfriends. I explained to Cora about Nana being the untouchable third rail who was never, ever to be joked about. I paused. I knew what I wanted to say next but I wasn’t at all sure how it would be received. Everyone has a third rail and this had the potential to be Cora’s. But for the wind swishing through the tall green grasses on the hill behind our yard it was quiet. I leaned back and watched a hawk easily glide through the silent currents of air high above and considered for a few more moments. And then with a deep breath and an appeal to not take what I was going to say next as diminishing my love for Cora or as any reflection on her at all I told her that I’d always loved Nana and probably always will. In an almost pleading fashion I told Cora it was something I just couldn’t shut off.
She thought for a moment and asked me, “What if you had seen her again?” I told her that’s a “what if” that didn’t and won’t happen and that the Nana who I love is the 25 year old Korean girl of over forty years ago. I repeated to her that I had no control over what I feel; there’s no off switch for it. It simply lives and hides somewhere inside of you and in this time of my life it was forced to briefly manifest itself. I explained to Cora that it’s always going to be there and that I want it to be there because for a brief time Nana was very special but its back in that box, hidden and sealed again and that it would never change my love for her.
I told Cora that I expect that the day will come when one of Cora’s friends or relatives who might have been rubbed the wrong way will take me to task for the Nana story. I’m waiting for the, “Did you love her more than Cora?” question which is a close cousin to the, “Have you stopped kicking your dog?” question. There’s no answer that won’t raise an eyebrow.
There isn’t a more and there isn’t a less. I can only say that I love them differently. They were different people, with different experiences. Cora came to America a degreed accountant in her late twenties. Nana arrived at 21 under different circumstances and certainly not with the job skills that Cora possessed. When I met Cora, she was happy and confident. When I met Nana she was deeply mired in that bad place. Cora was the devout Catholic who had spent time in a convent and who I was afraid, out of fear of papal wrath I guess, to even kiss although we’d been dating for weeks (“Is there something wrong with me?” she would ask her cousin). Nana and I were sleeping together shortly into our relationship. Neither was the better.
Cora and I talked about our relationships and our early lives and differences. Just as Nana and I had different backgrounds that eventually affected our relationship Cora and I had grown up with different experiences. Early in her life Cora had spent time in a convent. She had a father who was strict when she was growing up and in college and so serious boyfriends were not on life’s menu. I’d had more than a few relationships, some long term, some of them ending with, “Why did I go on THAT date?” In retrospect only two really encompassed love.
“But you had sex with all of them?”
“Well…..yeah…I guess maybe I did. We just lived in different times and places with different values.”
“You had sex with them and didn’t love them?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I thought I loved them or maybe it didn’t matter to either of us.”
“You know,” I told her, “there’s a difference between loving someone and being IN love. I’ve had a fair amount of girlfriends and while on some level we loved each other we were probably never IN love. Nana is different and so are you.”
“Have you ever been IN love?” I asked.
She paused; didn’t have an answer for that. My guess is that in her limited experience she may been infatuated but probably had never been IN love.
Cora changed the subject and it was here that I realized for another of the countless times that the woman I married has an unbelievable capacity for compassion and understanding. Knowing that my remaining concern about Nana is the notion that her life was not one that was well lived she said, “Maybe you can find a family member or talk to a Korean Association that might know something about her.”
I told her that there probably wouldn’t be anything positive coming from hunting down family or friends and that it would be doubtful if any association would have any information.
She went further in trying to reassure me by suggesting that the Korean community in Los Angeles where Nana had moved to is huge and that she probably found a support network just as a Filipino might here in the Bay Area.
I told her that if I wanted to know how it all ended I could always get a look at the death certificate. “I have to give that some thought though. And some time. I have to get way past the shock. There’s really not much further that I can go.”
She gave me a tacit approval to do that.
We sat for a few moments and then, as we’ve done for years every late spring, we went in the house and watched baseball.
We sat on the couch together as we have for 38 years and it dawned on me that Cora and Nana have become inextricably tied. And I recognized that this was a good thing. Not just because they were, at different periods, the loves of my life but because of who Nana was and who Cora is; two people as different as could be yet both of them as beautiful to me as anything God could create. That tie was made when Cora’s love and empathy allowed me space and later when her spirituality helped me to discover a hidden forty year old truth, apologize for it and shut off the valve through which all of that hurt was flowing. The tie was made when I told her and she accepted the notion that “Love is something that lives inside of us…” And the tie continues as Cora in her infinite and extraordinary goodness continues to pray for Nana’s soul in heaven, a gesture that whenever it crosses my mind also touches my heart and has me turning my head so that nobody will see the tears well up.